Few recent historical figures in South Africa elicit more divergent views than Frederick William (FW) de Klerk. He was president of the country from 1989 to 1994. Some will remember him as the last white South African president who played a leading role in ending the brutal apartheid system and preventing further bloodshed. But many will remember him simply as the last white minority leader to preside over apartheid and the violence that sustained him.
In recognition of his role in the demise of formal apartheid, De Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize. in 1993. He received it together with Nelson Mandela, who became the first democratic-era president of South Africa a year later. Historians have targeted the white minority unusual capitulation of powerespecially when compared to other settler societies. De Klerk was arguably a major part of that.
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But Mandela’s disparagement De Klerk’s a few years earlier as “head of an illegitimate and discredited minority regime … incapable of upholding moral standards” captures not only the animosity between the two leaders, but the sentiments of many, if not most, South Africans.
That De Klerk never saw himself and the National Party regime in that light is paradoxically what allowed him to lead the party’s resignation from state power.
Not that he had set out to do that.
The end of Cold War with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it meant the loss of Soviet Union support for anti-apartheid organizations. It also ended the West’s need for the apartheid regime as representative in Africa.
Meanwhile, apartheid lost its hegemonic hold over Afrikaner intellectuality, businesses, the media, and churches as doubts grew about their morality and continued viability.
Ideologist committed to apartheid
De Klerk will be most remembered for his famous speech delivered on February 2, 1990 in which he announced the abolition of the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements.
But it should not be interpreted as a Damascene conversion at the beginning of the rule of the black majority.
Rather, the announcement was made by De Klerk the pragmatist. He was taking a strategic risk to regain the initiative, in a situation where options beyond intensified military repression were rapidly narrowing.
It seems unlikely that De Klerk led this process.
Born in March 18, 1936 in Johannesburg, he came from a line of National Party leaders. The party came to power in 1948 brandishing its policy of apartheid. De Klerk’s uncle, JG Strijdom, was the second prime minister of apartheid. His father, Jan de Klerk, he served as a cabinet minister under three apartheid prime ministers.
De Klerk was associated with the conservative wing of the National Party. He actively participated in Afrikaner nationalist organizations. from an early age, before joining the apartheid parliament in the early 1970s.
De Klerk’s political career confirms his commitment to apartheid. After ascending to a ministerial post in the National Party in the late 1970s, he went through pivotal portfolios in the black domain.
As Minister of Education between 1984 and 1989, he was the main politician responsible for the continued implementation of “Help education”. This system was most devastating, reinforcing the racial hierarchy by limiting the life chances of black people from an early age.
De Klerk held onto the view that apartheid was meant to address the complexity of South African diversity. In its statement before Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the late 1990s he protested the international designation of apartheid as crime against humanity in 1973. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to examine human rights violations during the apartheid era.
He insisted before the Commission that crimes against humanity have to do with the “deliberate extermination of hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions – of people” and that whites, on the other hand, had increasingly shared state resources with blacks in the last years of apartheid.
De Klerk’s position hadn’t changed in 20 years, as evidenced by his 2020 public statement when he repeated this posture. But after an intervention by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation, he regressed a few days later and recognized the Definition of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of apartheid as a crime against humanity.
However, his concession was ambiguous:
This is not the time to discuss the degrees of unacceptability of apartheid.
De Klerk and the security forces
De Klerk’s denial of violence by the apartheid state was due in part to his insistence that he was personally unaware of the abuses by his security forces. He was not part of the inner circle of his bureaucratic predecessor. Pieter Willem (PW) Botha, which had created the repressive National Security Management System.
Yet he was a member of the State Security Council, the structure at the pinnacle of the National Security Management System. As a result, the Commission found that
[His] The statement that none of his colleagues in the Cabinet, the State Security Council or the Cabinet Committees had authorized assassinations, assassinations or other serious human rights violations was indefensible.
During his presidency, political violence escalated to invisible levels. De Klerk took several actions to neutralize the securocrats, suggesting that by then a split had opened in the National Party government between those determined to uphold apartheid and those who believed that it could no longer continue unchanged.
But, de Klerk’s grouping in the party certainly did not claim to establish today’s constitutional democracy based on human dignity, equality, and freedom. At the beginning of the multi-party negotiations, the party was confident that it could continue with the mere reformism of apartheid called “power sharing”, As Botha had started in the 1980s.
Shared power implied the construction of a “white veto” in parliamentary representation, as a counterweight to the right to vote of the black majority. But intense political violence halted the negotiations, increasingly jeopardizing the chances of a political settlement.
The creation of a alliance between black and white reactionaries in the African People’s Front, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the then nominally independent Bophuthatswana bantustan it brought a renewed urgency to find common ground.
This search was facilitated by scenario planning exercises that brought opponents together in social settings, contemplating the possible future of South Africa. These were based on a series of earlier meetings, also initiated by the Botha regime with Mandela as a political prisoner. already in 1984.
The unexpected personal dynamics of the enemies face to face brought down the stereotype of the “black communist terrorist” for the negotiators of the National Party. These interactions paved the way for the party and the ANC, as the main parties, to build mutual understanding and, ultimately, trust, especially between their respective main negotiators. Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf meyer.
De Klerk and his negotiators were dragged by the momentum of events. They came to realize that a democracy in which a constitution with a declaration of human rights is supreme, with equality before the law regardless of “race”, would be the best protection for their electorate that they could wish for.
Regarding the economic transformation, the National Party and the interests of the white capital that they represented were unable to block a constitutional clause that expressly provided for the expropriation of property in the public interest. However, the clause included an additional clause that such expropriation should be subject to compensation. The clause also stipulates that a “fair balance” must be struck between the interests of the public and the owner.
As a loyalist to the National Party, de Klerk continued on the path of Botha’s apartheid reformism, including through talks. But, unlike strongman Botha, he was not a securocrat. Came to believe that sharing power no Ultimately, it will be imposed through state violence.
Where Botha had faltered, de Klerk was able to take alternative measures. As the conservative leader of the National Party, he could bring with him most of the party and its constituency. It was not a change of mind that prompted De Klerk. He had entered a perfect postcolonial storm, from which there was no return.